The Wonderful World of Biology

I’m constantly looking for new things to explore about this world. So, I recently picked up a basic biology textbook.

I’ve been amazed at the things I’ve forgotten, or maybe that I never learned while in high school.

Here’s just a few:

First, cell division uses two different processes: meiosis and mitosis. The former is used to create cells that will be used in sexual reproduction; the latter is used for replicating cells that already exist. Meiosis basically grabs just 23 of the chromosomes from the 46 chromosomes in a normal cell. When sperm and egg meet they each contribute 23 chromosomes to create the first cell (46 chromosomes) in the fertilization process.

Second, there are roughly 37 trillion cells in the human body and they all function at a molecular level using a variety of chemicals and proteins. The chief function of a cell is creating energy which it does by converting molecules into ATP (adenosine triposphate). There are a host of other chemical processes involved in all this but ATP is a central platform for energy production in living things. My head is still spinning as I contemplate all the proteins, enzymes, and chemicals that go into what biologists call cell respiration.

Third, veins are part of a circulatory system carrying deoxygenated blood to the heart while the arterial system carries oxygenated blood to the organs that need it. What I did not know is that veins are not under pressure. You need to move to get the blood flowing. Arteries, though, are under pressure. This explains why movement is good. It “gets the blood flowing,” as they say. It is also why you bleed to death slowly when a vein is cut but you exsanguinate quickly when an artery is cut.

Fourth, plants create their own food using CO2 and sunlight while all other living organisms have to consume other living organisms, including plants, to create energy. Energy is the name of the game when it comes to biology. I do remember this from middle school and high school but I didn’t remember the details. The differences between plants and animals are fascinating!

By the way, reading about how plants produce their own energy using CO2 and sunlight gave me a new appreciation for work on organic computing. Imagine if we could create a plant-based computer that uses the sun’s energy to do calculations or to just act as sensors. Imagine how this would solve, on several different levels, the energy problem associated with silicon-based computing.

I could go on but do not want to overwhelm you. I’m feeling overwhelmed too but I want to know more! For example, I want to know more about how gene therapy uses our own body’s system of normal mitosis to correct genetic problems. Theoretically there could be a process developed whereby every cell in your body could be replaced with new ones. These could be cells without mutations or without kamikaze genes. They might be cells enhanced for greater strength, greater intelligence, or longer life. All it would take is the ability to replace specific differentiated cells with similar but superior cells. Of course, this might also lead to the eugenic wars of the Star Trek universe. So, let’s be careful, eh?

Amazing and fascinating are the only two words that come to mind as I dig down into the microscopic world of cells, viruses, chemistry, and atoms, and as I read about the macroscopic discovery of black holes, quasars, the bending of space and time, and now exoplanets, which our species might one day visit and explore.

Is it any wonder that my study of the microscopically small has shown me the unity of all life on this planet while my study of the astronomically large has shown me the necessity of ecological consciousness? The former has helped to strip me, although not completely, of our natural inclination toward tribalism and pettiness while the latter has convinced me of the need for unity and cooperation among our species.

This is no utopianism. It is no striving for perfection, or even immortality. It is the knowledge that we as a species may stand alone in the universe as the only ones fully conscious of all around us. Yet, if we are not alone then all the better. I hope we will learn to get along with all the potentially unknown life in this universe.

For now, though, let us learn to get along with those on this planet. It might also be a good idea to learn to get along with our environment. After all, it is the only planet we’ve got, at least for now.

Beyond the sheer fascinating details of it all, this is the central and practical lesson of science–of biology, chemistry, physics, and cosmology: we are all one in this gigantic universe, a universe that we may never be able to fully explore. If that thought scares you, you are not alone. If that thought animates you, then you have come to truly appreciate all that science offers to humanity.

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